We need to change before the climate does

30 January 2010

Now, imagine your professor coming to your first lecture and telling you: “This year, we shall work cooperatively to ensure that you all write a 1st class exam”. Then, imagine the same professor standing up there, reading out his power-point slides line by line, all year long, repeating from time to time that he wants you to get a 1st class at the end of the year. Sometimes the lecturer would not show up at all; most of the time, he would assign some work to you, but will never check whether you have completed it and how well.

Welcome to the global climate change debate: a course whose grand objectives are not backed by the practical means necessary to achieve them; a repetitive, convoluted discussion in which stakeholders voice their concerns without getting down to compromising solutions; a debate which is constantly late for its appointment with history, not to mention the hopeless delays with respect to science. The Copenhagen Accord, the outcome of the recent COP15, is the latest product of this debate. ‘Taken note of’, not even signed, by the parties to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), is a wish-list that puts forward a laudable objective: avoid global temperature increase of more than 2 degrees Celsius. However, reading through the document, only very vague strategies are laid down reaching the climax of ‘UNism’ in paragraph seven: “we decide to pursue various approaches, including opportunities to use markets, to enhance the cost-effectiveness of, and to promote mitigation actions”. That means everything and nothing.

Those observers brave enough to defend the Accord, highlight the novelty of an agreement on climate change signed by the whole world – but this is not new at all, considering that all parties to the UNFCCC had already agreed to similar objectives before. Others try to emphasize the importance of the creation of a Green Climate Fund, in order to promote mitigation and adaptation projects in developing countries; however, without any precise commitment by industrialised countries, the Copenhagen Fund is likely to remain an empty box.

Is the fight against climate change lost, then? The inconsistency of the Copenhagen Accord is crystal clear, even for world leaders and diplomats. This will certainly act as a shock in the climate debate, similar to the release of the scientific report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change in 2007, which predicted the devastating effects of climate change on our environment and our health. Global climate change negotiations are necessary because individual country’s efforts to reduce CO2 emissions are worthless if they are not coordinated. However, the COP15 showed that an obsessive search for the perfect globally and legally binding agreement does not produce concrete results.

Paradoxically, national and regional measures to curb CO2 emissions should be established before the next COP16, as this would strengthen reciprocal trust by negotiating parties. In fact, the strongest position in Copenhagen was held by the European Union, having already approved its Climate Change directive that commits member states to reduce emissions by 20% by 2020 and leaves the option of a further 10% reduction subject to the approval of a global agreement. The global climate change debate would finally be revitalised if national legislators could arrive to the next conference in Mexico City with something concrete: laws, action plans and even hard data from the experience accumulated. Civil society, which gathered with so much hope and energy in Denmark, needs to put pressure on the local level, now. Achieving a 1st class mark would seem more reasonable, or at least more realistic, then. And the lecturer would have no more excuses to be repetitive, absent or even a little bit useless.

Lorenzo Casullo

Lorenzo has been to Copenhagen with UNICEF, as facilitator of the first Children’s Climate Forum.